FOXBORO -- It has quickly become a staple of the Patriots running game, something that opposing defenses can expect to see just about every week.
In fact, the Titans defense saw it on their host's first play from scrimmage on Sunday: Rookie offensive lineman Shaq Mason pulling from his spot at left guard, looking for collision.
The 6-foot-1, 300-pounder entered into the NFL with an advanced skill set as it pertained to run-blocking since that was the bulk of what he was asked to do during his time in Georgia Tech's option offense. And since Week 1, when he played 36 of 61 offensive snaps as part of a rotation on the interior, the Patriots have taken advantage of his ability to get out of his stance, get on the move, and smother his target.
On New England's first offensive play on Sunday, Mason ran down the line of scrimmage -- staying tight to the backs of his teammates on the offensive line so as not to waste any motion -- and wiped out linebacker Avery Williamson who was engaged with Marcus Cannon. Running back Brandon Bolden picked up nine yards as a result, and the Patriots offense had established a physical tone for the afternoon.
As the year has worn on, Mason has made strides in pass protection -- earlier this season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick admitted that was an area where Mason was likely deficient due to his college offense -- but it was his athleticism in the running game that earned the 22-year-old praise from his head coach during a conference call on Tuesday.
"He’s probably one of the most athletic players, one of the most athletic offensive linemen I’ve coached," Belichick said. "He would certainly be in that upper category and upper part of that conversation. He runs well. He’s got very good balance and short-space quickness and is light on his feet.
"Fundamentally and technique-wise there are a lot of things that he still needs to work on, and Shaq has improved a lot, but there are still things for him to work on, things he can do better and do more consistently. But just in terms of athleticism, balance, speed, quickness, he’s very good, very, very talented, and he’s got good power and playing strength and explosion, too. Those are all positives with him."
Mason has been part of a rookie class that has provided the Patriots with significant production this season. He has started nine games at left guard, while fellow 2015 fourth-round draft pick Tre' Jackson has started seven, and undrafted free agent rookie center David Andrews has started 11. Malcom Brown has been the team's most frequently used interior defensive lineman, while Jordan Richards, Geneo Grissom and Joe Cardona have played significant roles in the kicking game.
Belichick lauded this year's entire rookie class for its work ethic, especially off the field.
"I think overall it’s been a real good group," he said. "Those guys have really come in and done everything we’ve asked them to do. We’ve had a lot of groups, had a lot of players fall into this category, but I would say as a total group, these guys have been as good, if not better, than any group we’ve had off the field in terms of their preparation, doing what they’re asked to do, doing what they’ve been told to do, improving, paying attention to the little things, trying to do the right thing for the team, all those things.
"I mean each individual player’s characteristics and performance, those are all kind of separate discussions, although I think overall we’ve gotten contributions from that group, but each one individually has a little different dynamic. But as a total group and the chemistry that they have with each other and with the team has been very good. It’s been great. It’s been great."